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When Canadians Act Like Americans

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Where are those dour fellows who kept their emotions on the inside and reserved their aggressiveness for ice hockey only? Are those self-effacing, unpretentious, never-leveraged guys we used to love... MIA?

By most measures, the Vancouver Olympics were a grand success and medals were won in a logical as well as heroic manner. But those who see Canadian pride as the foundation for a new brand of national character might pause to consider what that might mean.

Social scientists often shy away from the subject of national character -- as do those with any instinct for political correctness. And for good reason. Assertions about the characteristics of any national, racial, or religious group begs for qualification and refutation. That kind of talk has historically been just plain dangerous -- and often tragic in its consequence. However, it is hard to deny that most of us have opinions, based on our own observations and experiences about most groups we have encountered.

Americans and Canadians are easy to compare.They share a continent and a language and the following differences are often noted: Americans are extroverted to the Canadian introvert; they are friendly (often to a fault) while the brother to the north is more reserved. What passes for small talk to Americans (such as discussions of money, hopes and dreams), Canadians see as vulgar bragging. American competitiveness and acquisitiveness are easy targets for anyone seeking to criticize our foreign policy or our social contract.

By contrast, Canadians are orderly, restrained, fair-minded and loathe to ruffle feathers. They "live and let live," at least publicly. Although we Americans might detect a certain smugness in Canadian attitudes toward us, more than likely, they wouldn't say "merde" if they had a mouthful!

So the aura around the Vancouver Olympics shook up some veteran Canada watchers. "Own the Podium" is a very overt battle cry -- one we might have expected to hear from, well, vulgar Americans. Persnickitiness about allowing non-Canadian Olympians practice time is hardly unusual behavior from host countries -- but not what we expect from a country that reputedly held "fair play" as a more important value than winning. (Except in ice hockey where Canadians let loose just like the rest of us). Grandstanding about number of gold medals and a new era of national pride is an interesting bookend to these Olympic games that will be remembered by many around the world who couldn't name the Prime Minister of Canada if their life depended on it.

What this means is hard to say. Perhaps nothing. Canadians like all the other participating countries will return to the circumstances and cultures and historical imperatives that created their own unique circumstance. It's one thing for Canadians to say "hockey is who we are" -- sounds right, sounds true, sounds like the world order.

But those who truly hope that the Vancouver Olympics signals a change in Canadian national character might do well to be careful what they wish for. Competitiveness is often at the expense of fairness. Self-promotion and self-interest can drown out more nuanced dialogue. Personal ambition has been known to have a chilling affect on the common good. Just ask an American -- or better yet, come on down and see for yourself.

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